The Innovation State

The Patrick Administration has focused on innovation in government and policy, to the delight of state hi-tech. (Photo Credit: Office of Governor Patrick's photostream)

The Patrick Administration has focused on innovative government and policy, to the delight of state hi-tech. (Photo Credit: Office of Governor Patrick’s photostream)

Six years ago, state government was a mess. Six years on, the Patrick Administration has transformed it.

President Ronald Reagan once quipped that “the most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” His rhetoric launched a conservative revolution that demonized all things government from policies to personnel, a fire that burns still. There’s coverage aplenty when officials meet such expectations — the Big Dig, anyone? — but precious little when they don’t.

The reason is simple enough. While government gone wrong is big, expensive, and impossible to miss, government gone right is often small, cheap, and practically invisible. True, Massachusetts suffered a multibillion disaster with the Big Dig. But it also created a statewide smartphone app to heighten accountability at Departments of Public Works, launched grant programs designed to modernize municipalities and their vocational schools, and funnelled billions in federal stimulus funds to crucial infrastructure projects across the Commonwealth.

But a smartphone app is personal, modernization subtle, and roadwork routine. Few residents note the efforts required to launch and maintain such projects, and fewer still (zero?) commend Beacon Hill on jobs well done. Imagine, then, the coverage of programs without immediate and obvious results. For example, did you know that the Patrick Administration this year produced two state budgets? The numbers were identical, so why bother?

The first budget produced by the Executive Office for Administration and Finance (ANF) was a traditional line-item affair, with dollar amounts tied to spending accounts. This timeless system makes a labyrinth of the state budget, difficult to decipher and stocked with hidden earmarks. The second budget was programmatic, with dollar amounts identified by the specific program they were designed to fund.

Compare the versions and try to trace a particular project’s funding stream. With the original, you’re probably out of luck; line items don’t separate general funding into funded programs. On the other hand, the “program budget” makes it easy. Open the document, find your program area, and there it is — the departments working on the issue, which offices received funding, and exactly how much was allocated for that work per office.

It may not warrant a national headline, but Patrick has delivered substantive change in the business of government since taking office in 2007. Where President Barack Obama has sometimes fumbled his promised federal transparency, the Governor has built a welcome window into State House practices. Coupled with newly-mandated strategic plans outlining goals and performance metrics for each secretariat, it really is a whole new world.

That change extends beyond Boston. The state has partnered with cities across the Commonwealth to revitalize stagnant neighborhoods and attract innovative new businesses. The business as usual that left too many without adequate funding and support is gone, though plenty of work remains. “Greater Massachusetts” still plays second fiddle to a thriving Boston, but that reality is changing. Instead of working against the capital, municipal leaders are working with it.

From other cities to other countries, the Governor has extended a hand and offered a different kind of government relationship. Not top-down demands, but partnerships built on common goals and shared ambition. Massachsuetts ranks among the top economies in the world, and it has finally embraced a global role befitting such status.

Other changes have stalled in the legislature, reliant on a body that has long enjoyed the complicated secrecy of Massachusetts bureaucracy. Having decided against reelection in 2014, Patrick seized the opportunity to propose sweeping change on Beacon Hill. By and large, he got what he came for.

But in choosing to leave the corner office, Patrick has also left his accomplishments to yet-unknown successors. Will the next governor abandon program budgeting? Might he disband the Office of the Government Innovation Officer? As federal stimulus finally runs dry, what will become of attempts to centralize the state grants process?

As always, few will care and fewer will ask. Candidates for governor will ignore the administration’s hardwon reforms to trumpet their own unproven proposals. Such is the nature of politics. But before Deval Patrick takes the Long Walk to Boston Common, it’s worth noting the changed institutions he leaves behind. Reagan warned of corruption and scandal, but men like Patrick prove that there’s still hope for American government we could believe in.

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